One Saturday morning 13 years ago, Darryl Thompson went to brush his teeth. The 15-year-old from the Bronx was with four other boys at Tryon, a notorious juvenile prison in upstate New York. The boys were not allowed to talk during their morning routine, but it was hard not to: For the last two days, they had been on lockdown, cut off from the outside world.
Sometime during their chatter, an aide rushed into the bathroom. Either Thompson pushed the aide first or the aide shoved Thompson. But what happened next was beyond dispute. Two aides pinned the 15-year-old face down on the floor while a third aide cuffed Thompson’s wrists behind his back. He stopped breathing and left the prison in an ambulance. He would never return.
The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, but a grand jury declined to indict the aides.
Thompson’s death made public a sickening reality. Prisons weren’t just caging adults of color at disproportional rates; children were being locked up as well. The fight to reform America’s broken criminal-justice system would be waged over the fate of incarcerated children.
By 2010, the most dangerous of New York’s youth prisons were placed under federal oversight. Gladys Carrión, then the commissioner of New York’s Office of Children and Family Services, ordered reforms that included new mental-health services at the prisons and limits on the use of physical force.
Under Carrión, New York State shuttered more than two dozen youth prisons, including Tryon in 2011. Welcoming the federal consent decree, New York overhauled its system for incarcerating children, hiring psychiatrists, counselors, and instituting a new program called Close to Home to keep children in New York City, many of them of color, from being shipped to dismal upstate facilities. The youth prison population plummeted as crime continued to drop—New York City no longer sends children to state-operated youth prisons, while nearly 4,000 were locked up in the mid-1990s—and within a decade, New York’s handling of minors was no longer a national embarrassment.
Now, Carrión is working with Columbia University Justice Lab, and hoping to take New York’s success national: Tomorrow, she and 45 other former or current youth corrections officials around the nation, including Vincent Schiraldi, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation, will launch a new organization, Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, to help guide towns, cities, and states on how to close youth prisons for good.
The initiative marks a return to the public stage for Carrión, who also led New York City’s Administration of Child Services under Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat. In 2016, she announced her resignation following the high-profile death of Zymere Perkins, a 6-year-old whom ACS failed to remove from an abusive home. (At the time for her resignation, some advocates defended Carrión, claiming City Hall scapegoated her.)
For progressive corrections officials and advocates of criminal-justice reform, ending the era of mass incarceration for minors represents a final frontier, one where there’s a growing degree of bipartisan consensus. Research has shown the human brain doesn’t reach full maturity until age 25, and imprisoning children does not correlate with crime reduction. For children under 18, getting locked up far from home can be a deeply traumatic and destructive experience, utterly failing to prepare them for reentry into society.
Mirroring trends among adult prisoners, incarcerated youth, especially in diverse states like New York, tend to be poor and nonwhite. Physical and mental abuse is endemic to how youth prisons operate. Two separate reports by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is providing funding to the Columbia Justice Lab for the new push to end youth prisons, chronicled recurring or systemic maltreatment of incarcerated youth in all but five states from 1970 to 2015.
“We have a ways to go on kids that continue to get locked up for minor offenses,” said Krista Larson, the director of the Center on Youth Justice at the Vera Institute. “We need to distinguish between the people we are afraid of and the people we are mad at. We get frustrated with kids. There’s still an issue where want to teach them a lesson or where we think incarceration is going to be effective—none of the research tells us it is.”
The height of youth incarceration followed America’s turn toward punitive sentencing in the second half of the 20th century. As crime began to surge in the 1970s, many Democrats and Republicans reached a grim consensus that far more people, especially African Americans, needed to be locked up.
By 1995, the year before Hillary Clinton was infamously warning about “super predator” child criminals, the number of youth incarcerated in prisons had skyrocketed 45 percent over the previous two decades. Nationwide, there were as many as 109,000 children in juvenile facilities in the mid-1990s, according to the Columbia Justice Lab.
Over the next decade, resistance grew to these policies, fueled by a growing awareness of the dismal conditions of many youth prisons, a robust criminal-justice-reform movement, and data showing how ineffective—as well as expensive—these facilities had become. It costs $150,000 on average to lock up a single juvenile. Young people who experience America’s youth prisons are more likely to be arrested in the future, have worse job prospects, and be prone to mental illness.
Declining crime rates gave politicians the courage to act. By the end of 2018, there were a little over 46,000 youths incarcerated nationwide, less than half the number behind bars 20 years ago.
“In the end, one of the most important drivers of reform has been the shifting reality that there are fewer young people coming into conflict with the law, and that’s created an opportunity for a systemic reevaluation of what had previously been a counterproductive tough-on-crime approach,” said Ian Kysel, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, where he focuses on youth-justice work.
While complete prison abolition remains more an ideal than a concrete goal—New York City is closing the hellish Rikers Island facility, but building four smaller jails to replace it—advocates see a real opportunity over the next decade to make youth prisons a relic of a regrettable past. For Schiraldi, the co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab who oversaw the closure of youth prisons in New York and Washington, DC, closing them nationwide is attainable with enough effort and political buy-in. “You’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do with the young people that keeps you safe and helps them turn their lives around and we feel like we can advance the ball in both of those areas,” Schiraldi said.
Over the past few months, Schiraldi has traveled to Milwaukee and to Harris County, Texas, to consult with politicians and correctional officials about how best to close youth prisons there. It’s not simply a matter of locking it down, sending the children home, and walking away. A state needs to have programs in place to receive and supervise the children, many of whom may have behavioral or mental-health issues. The challenge, at least in the early stages, is funding two systems simultaneously—a prison system and a network beyond it to supervise the troubled children when the system closes.
Politics will invariably come into play. Prisons were once viewed as an economic-development model; even progressive local leaders can resist, in the initial stages, closing facilities because of job losses. In rural towns, employment as a unionized correction officer is one of the few routes to a middle-class life with health and retirement benefits.
This is where New York’s approach—a willingness to confront entrenched interest groups—may help.
In New York, the State Senate was controlled by suburban and upstate Republicans for most of the last half century. New York was also one of the last states in America to stop trying 16-year-olds as adults. Carrión, as the commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services in three Democratic administrations, had to tangle with powerful Republicans to close prisons. “New York is a difficult place and we were able to forge transformative change,” she said. “This is a strong union state. I mean, the [corrections] unions are entrenched, you had a Republican Senate for a hundred years, three governors. Not withstanding all of that, change was possible.”
Advocates see Close to Home, launched in New York City in 2012 when Michael Bloomberg was mayor, as one model that can be increasingly replicated nationwide. Rather than funneling children who had been determined by a Family Court judge to be “delinquent” to rural prisons, Close to Home allowed them, as the name suggests, to stay in rehabilitative facilities, usually group homes, near their families, allowing for visits and family counseling.
The security of facilities can vary. Some that are more lenient allow for children to leave to attend classes, while others import teachers. Many of the children in Close to Home were not attending school regularly when they were arrested.
While the program has been lauded by advocates, it has not been without controversy. Critics on the left have questioned whether authorities are too quick to send children to facilities for probation violations, especially when they are nonviolent. There have also been incidents of children slipping away from group homes without permission. In 2015, three 16-year-olds escaped from a group home in Brooklyn and raped and robbed a woman.
Still, Close to Home remains one model for what rehabilitation beyond prisons can look like for children. Reeducated staff at these facilities is also key: Under Carrión, officials were retrained in what was is known as the “Missouri Model,” named for successful juvenile-rehabilitation efforts in Missouri.
“Kids are treated as whole human beings. The curriculum and everything about it is designed to treat a person with dignity and respect and create opportunities for a pathway out,” said Elizabeth Glazer, the director of de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice and previously the secretary for public safety in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, where she was a colleague of Carrión’s.
In a Missouri facility, couches with soft cushions replace locked cells. Children interact in group circles. Therapy is used to de-escalate violence. It is the kind of approach that could have saved the life of Darryl Thomas in 2006. The hope, for the criminal-justice movement around youth, is that there is never another death like his.
“There’s momentum,” Carrión said. “These institutions are bad for young people and there’s a confluence of events that really drive the fact that we should be closing youth prisons because we know they don’t work.”